Are all role models made equal? Are you ready to ELBA?
There has been a storm in a teacup this week about role models for young women. A prominent head teacher suggested that female characters from Shakespeare might be more appropriate than reality TV stars or popular musicians. Cue frenetic media debate. Is Cleopatra a good role model? Did she really embody the qualities we would like to see in young women? How relevant are fictional characters in any case – but hang on, Cleopatra was a real woman in history, so is it the Shakespeare version we are talking about, or the fact that in the ancient world a woman was once the holder of high office and a wielder of immense power?
In all the debate I didn’t hear much about why we all think role models are so important, and exactly what their purpose is. It’s received wisdom in education circles that exposing school students to successful people from a wide range of backgrounds will help raise aspirations and broaden horizons. It is obvious that children as they grow up make sense of the world through the lives of the adults closest by. They model their own futures on those they see around them. In a mass media world, those close associates might be way beyond the confines of their own school and circle of friends and family.
I think that is true, but is the purpose of role models to inspire young people in some general sense, or to help them visualise themselves in that particular role or career when they grow up? I think there is a difference here. I can very clearly pinpoint a person who inspired me in the business I used to run before joining ELBA. As Kelly Holmes came around the last bend in the 800 metres in the Athens Olympic Games all my previous preconceptions about sport and massive international events were dispelled. I was electrified and inspired to get involved in the campaign to bring the Olympics to London, and London 2012 related activity became an important part of my business for the next eight years. I was also inspired by her story of triumph over adversity, overcoming a number of injury set-backs and bleak times in her career. So I was inspired, but was she a role model? – well clearly I am never going to win a medal at the Olympics but there was a big influence nevertheless. And her gender was not relevant, so I am not sure that always has to be matched for the inspiration to kick in.
So I am all in favour of young people getting as much exposure as possible during their school years to all kinds of successful and inspiring people. I don’t agree with the head teacher aforementioned that we should look to Shakespeare. Inspiring role models are everywhere. Some of them might be pre-eminent in their field or profession, or in the arts; some from more prosaic backgrounds so that young people can more easily see how they can aspire to enter certain professions or jobs. Right now there is a senior nurse doing something amazing near where you are, and we should be getting her to tell her story in front of young people at an early age – together with all the other everyday heroes. Cleopatra can go play with her asp.